Air Force Bases

Missile testing at Vandenberg Air Force Base

With ICBM development receiving the highest national priority during the mid- 1950s, the Air Force needed a location to test these missiles under operational conditions. Such conditions were difficult to simulate at Patrick AFB and Cape Canaveral, Florida, where missile testing had been taking place. After a nationwide search that included the evaluation of 200 different locations, in 1956 the Air Force settled on Camp Cooke, an Army facility located on the California coast 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Cooke was relatively far away from populated areas; enjoyed favorable climate that allowed year-round operations; had access to the ocean, which could be used as a range; and was located close to the southern California aerospace industry. Here the Air Force could build and test the missiles and launching facilities that would form the backbone of United States strategic deterrence.

In 1957, the Army transferred the northern and southern sections of the base to the Air Force and Navy, respectively. The Navy subsequently established the Naval Missile Facility at Point Argue110 and the Pacific Missile Range, and maintained control of the 20,000 acre tract until 1964. At that time the Air Force assumed control of this property and the range became known as the Western Test Range. Meanwhile, much had happened on the 65,000 acres that had been renamed Vandenberg AFB on October 4, 1958, to honor the deceased former Air Force Chief of Staff.

The Air Research Development Command took control of the facility in early 1957. With Air Force control established, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, in April 1957, activated the 1st Missile Division. Later dubbed "One Strad," this organization would play important roles in training missile launch crews, supporting test launches, and performing required missile maintenance.

Throughout the duration of the Cold War, prototype launch pads, control facilities, and silos for every generation of American ICBMs were built and tested at Vandenberg AFB. The Los Angeles District of the Army Corps of Engineers played an integral part in constructing these complex facilities and their supporting administrative and housing facilities. Groundbreaking began in May 1957 for the first of these facilities and during the next 3 years the Air Force expended over $200 million on new construction and to upgrade existing facilities. Examples of support facilities include huge sheet metal covered missile assembly buildings, liquid oxygen generation plants, and instrumentation facilities.

On July 1, 1957, the 704th Strategic Missile Wing was activated to oversee activities of specific missile training squadrons scheduled to be activated in the coming months. One of these squadrons, the 392nd Missile Training Squadron assumed the duties of training prospective missilemen on the Great Britain-bound Thor IRBM. The first launch facilities completed included seven launch pads and three blockhouses for the conduct of Thor IRBM testing. These complexes would later become known as SLC-1, SLC-2, and SLC-10. On December 16, 1958, a crew from the First Missile Division successfully launched a Thor IRBM, inaugurating the intermediate-range ballistic missile portion of the Pacific Missile Range. The following April, a Royal Air Force crew duplicated the feat.

In January 1958, ARDC transferred the base to the Strategic Air Command (SAC). With facilities under construction for America's first ICBM, on April 1, 1958, Headquarters SAC activated the 576th Strategic Missile Squadron.

The first Atlas launcher to be completed (576A-1) was accepted from the contractor by the 1st Missile Division on October 16, 1958. The first Atlas D missile arrived the following February. Initially, the squadron's Atlas D missiles were deployed at complexes 576A and 576B. Complex 576A consisted of three above-ground gantries; 576B had three above-ground coffin launchers of a type that would be constructed at other sites. Each complex had one launch control center.

The 576th SMS launched its first Atlas D on September 9, 1959. Immediately following the launch, SAC's Commander in Chief, General Thomas S. Power declared Vandenberg's Atlas missile operational. A month later, the squadron's Atlas missiles were placed on an alert status. The activation had more psychological value than military value as the reliability of the Atlas D missile was highly questionable. Improved versions were already undergoing production along with launch facilities to support them. As the above-ground sites became operational, construction continued on a buried coffin launcher to hold an Atlas E missile (designated launch site 576C) and work began on two Atlas F silo lift launchers (576D and 5763). By 1962, 11 prototype Atlas complexes had been constructed at Vandenberg AFB.

On July 31, 1958, construction began on the Operational System Test Facility for the Titan I missile. This facility would serve as the prototype of the hardened Titan I launch control facility. By the fall of 1960, four Titan I lift silos had been completed with three training silos (395 A-1,-2, and -3) grouped at one complex and a fourth located in a separate area. In December 1960, an explosion ripped through this silo during a simulated launch, resulting in massive damage. By early 1961, four silos were completed or undergoing completion for the follow-on Titan II system.

With the deactivation of first generation ICBMs in 1965, Vandenberg's Atlas and Titan I sites were deactivated with major equipment being salvaged. The last Titan II site (at Vandenberg) remained in service until 1977.

Vandenberg also played an important role in the Minuteman program. In 1961 construction began on six Minuteman silos and a launch control facility. By 1965, 14 silos for Minuteman I and II missiles dotted the base's Casmalia hills south of Point Sal. Later, seven of these silos were modified to fire Minuteman III missiles. Three of these complexes underwent further modification in the 1980s to launch Peacekeeper MX ICBMs. Activated in 1960, the 394th Strategic Missile Squadron handled training and operations at these sites.

In April 1967, Vandenberg hosted a SAC-sponsored missile combat competition called "Operation Curtain Raiser" with crews from Titan II and Minuteman Wings participating. Eventually dubbed "Olympic Arena," this event grew to be an annual event with teams competing for the Blanchard Perpetual Trophy and other honors such as the Best Combat Crew, Best Targeting Team, Best Communications Team, Best Munitions Maintenance Team Award, and Best Missile Handling Team. These annual events enhanced professionalism and esprit de corps among America's missilemen and provided training opportunities since annual events often were planned to coincide with test launchings that often used the visiting crews to perform the task.

In addition to being used to evaluate the capabilities of operational ICBMs and serving as a launch location for many of America's military satellites, Vandenberg played an important role in America's antiballistic missile efforts. In 1962, an Army Nike Zeus missile launched from Kwajalein Island successfully intercepted an Atlas D ICBM launched from Vandenberg. Many additional launched targets gave the Army opportunities to perfect its interceptor missiles and tracking capabilities.

By 1968, Vandenberg's 98,000 acres covered an area double that of the nation's capital, and supported a population of over 28,000. Some 1,076 buildings, 1,983 housing units, 797 trailer spaces, and a massive utility infrastructure supported the base mission.

In 1981, Space Launch Complex (SLC) 10/Thor, considered the best surviving example of 1950s launch technology, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The complex includes the launch pad, blockhouse, support buildings, roll-away shelter and an SM-75 Thor missile. In 1988, the Missile Heritage Foundation opened a museum at SLC-10 dedicated to preserving the history of the Air Force ICBM programs.

Here is general information on Vandenberg AFB